FACTS? WHO NEEDS FACTS WHEN YOU HAVE CHAD FORD?
Synopsis: With respect to all of the people responsible for hyping Darko Milicic prior to the 2003 NBA Draft, ESPN Draft Analyst Chad Ford might deserve the most blame. Given his role in that debacle, Ford qualifies as a T10B Honorable Mention. At the same time, he deserves consideration for Top 10 Busted! status given the controversy surrounding retroactive revisions to his pre-draft rankings. Apparently, someone hacked ESPN’s website to make Ford seem better at predicting the success of future NBA players. Ford’s employer has come out publicly to support their “victimized” analyst. I do too. NOT!
CHAD FORD: NBA DRAFT ANALYST BUST
Reporters should be like referees. In essence, we shouldn’t even realize that they’re there when they’re doing their jobs well. They should let the substance of the story (or the game) be the focus of our attention. I realize reporters don’t view themselves that way because ratings are earned by providing conjecture and sensationalism more so than the actual news (e.g. Steven A . . . you know his last name). We’re well past the days of respectable journalism with voices such as Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite, but I just wish that there was more news reporting and less news creating today. In honor of modern-day journalism / news creation, I’ve put together the following hypothetical based on minimal facts and a lot of conjecture. Please note that much of the following is unsubstantiated, but that shouldn’t matter. Don’t you agree, Chad?
I’ve done as much research as possible (with an internet connection) to uncover the circumstances that resulted in Darko Milicic’s selection as the 2nd overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. After all of my research, I believe that unbridled hype allowed a talented, but under-developed, basketball player from Yugoslavia (now split into Serbia and Montenegro) be selected before three future Hall of Famers. Specifically, my theory has four main components:
- Milicic’s agent created the false impression that his client was a phenom on par with LeBron James;
- ESPN Draft Analyst Chad Ford believed the hype and perpetuated it;
- Although reluctant at first, the NBA eventually bought into the hype; and
- Joe Dumars took the bait and made a colossal mistake by drafting Milicic instead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade.
Well, wish me luck in supporting my theory.
1. Milicic’s agent created the false impression that his client was a phenom on par with LeBron James.
Going back to articles about Milicic prior to the 2003 Draft, I noticed a lot of the same type of stories. Specifically, there was a common theme that he was able to handle the competition despite playing against stronger and older players in the top level of the Yugoslav Basketball Association (YUBA). As you might imagine, comments were made about Darko playing against men in a professional league while LeBron still was playing against boys in high school. I guess that was the only way to explain the substantial difference in their numbers.
PRE-NBA STATS FOR LEBRON JAMES AND DARKO MILICIC
|Per Game Average|
While Milicic was putting up pedestrian numbers in Yugoslavia, LeBron had no equal in America. He was the two-time Gatorade High School Player of the Year (who likely would have gone #1 in the draft after his junior year in high school) while selling out NBA arenas and attracting millions of viewers on national television. As the following cover shows, the hype surrounding LeBron was so extensive that some people started to questions the lofty expectations being set for him.
Based on predictions that he would be better than Magic or Jordan, LeBron arguably still hasn’t surpassed the expectations established for him back in high school. Then again, he’s come closer than anyone not named Kobe. Unlike the widespread hype surrounding LeBron, the hype surrounding Milicic was kept mostly within NBA circles.
In 1998, Mavericks GM and Head Coach Don Nelson made Milwaukee look foolish in a draft day trade for Dirk Nowitzki. By 2003, NBA teams were spending more time and money scouting international players trying to find the next diamond in the rough. When rumors started that Milicic could be the next Nowitzki, scouts flocked to Yugoslavia to see him play. Despite this excitement, the media hype surrounding Milicic was nothing like it was for LeBron. In particular, there were only a few journalists who seemed to be on the front end of the story.
After reading several articles from Milicic’s pre-NBA exploits, I noticed quite a few similarities in the adjectives and anecdotes used to describe him. Effectively, the source for all of the information appears to have been Milicic’s agent. Mind you, I don’t fault an agent for doing his job and telling anyone who would listen that his client would be the next Dirk Nowitzki; however, I do question members of the media who bought into the stories without validating many of the claims for themselves.
2. ESPN Draft Analyst Chad Ford believed the hype and perpetuated it.
Chad Ford wrote a sensationalistic article on January 23, 2003 about his journey to see Milicic in person. To start, he wrote,”While the rest of the world tuned in breathlessly to the first national broadcast on ESPN2 of a LeBron James game, I was navigating through the snow and ice to get a peek at the kid many think will be the second player selected in this year’s NBA draft.” Putting aside the hardship that Ford had to go through in order to do his job, I was amused by his comment that “many” thought Milicic would be the #2 pick even though Milicic wasn’t even eligible for the draft at the time. Granted, Milicic’s agent was trying to get the NBA’s eligibility requirements changed, but it hadn’t happened yet so I doubt “many” assumed it was a forgone conclusion.
If you read any of my posts evaluating ESPN analyst Mel Kiper’s inaccurate assessment of future Top 10 NFL Draft Busts, I need to establish a new standard because Chad Ford belongs in a completely different category. Heck, Hall of Fame Coach Jim Boeheim can do it for me. Earlier in this college basketball season, Boeheim took issue with Ford’s forecast of Syracuse’s Chris McCullough as a lottery pick in the 2015 Draft. In a press conference during which a reporter referenced McCullough’s potential draft position, Boeheim responded by saying, “You keep looking at what Chris (sic) Ford says. He’s a really smart guy. He knows exactly who is going to get drafted.”
Before going any further, go back to the last two sentences and re-read them in the most sarcastic tone you can imagine because that’s exactly how Boeheim said them. Based on the coach’s attitude, it’s fair to wonder whether he used the wrong name for Chad Ford on purpose. Anyhow, Boeheim continued, “I’ve talked to ten pro scouts. Not one of them thought that Chris McCullough was a first-round pick. So who’s he [Ford] talking to? I have no idea.”
Coach Boeheim didn’t stop there and referenced Ford’s inaccurate appraisal of a couple Syracuse players from the 2014 draft class. Specifically, he said,
Quote (from Chad Ford) last year. Well, he’s in the top 10 in the draft board, that’s where he’s going to go. I said, ‘On whose draft board? ESPN’s?’ They do not have a team. They do not have a team at ESPN. That’s the kind of misinformation that gets kids thinking about things and parents thinking about things that make no sense, whatsoever.
Given Syracuse’s recent self-imposed, post-season ban for past transgressions, Boeheim may not want to jump back up on a soap box any time soon. However, his comments are valid because draft analysts can be used like pawns by agents or scouts to make statements that don’t have any factual basis.
Less than one month after the press conference, McCullough suffered a season-ending injury when he tore his right ACL. Ford commented that the Syracuse freshman could still be a late 1st round / early 2nd round pick because no team was expecting immediate results from him anyway. The top college programs are able to recover from players who leave early, but the big losers are the kids who leave school early with a false hope and have nowhere to go when their dreams are shattered.
[Note: Since this post originally was written, McCullough declared for the 2015 Draft and was taken as a late 1st round pick (29th overall) by the Brooklyn Nets. With reservation, I realize that Ford deserves credit for his projection. Then again, let’s see how McCullough does as an NBA player before getting too excited.]
[Update: During his 3-year NBA career, McCullough scored 194 points and had 112 rebounds in 59 games. Based on these totals, he averaged 3.3 points and 1.9 rebound per game. Coach apparently knows best. At least, he offered a more honest impression of his player’s talent than “Chris” Ford did.]
I give credit to Ford for traveling to the “small, windswept town of Vrsac, Yugoslavia” to scout Milicic, but I wonder if he actually saw him play in person. In particular, Milicic’s coaches refused to play their “star player” when NBA scouts came to see him. According to articles written by journalists who talked to Milicic’s agent, the coaches sat Milicic because they were jealous of the attention being paid to him. Hmm, sounds like something an agent would say instead of admitting that his client was benched for taking outside shots despite being told to pound the ball inside. Regardless, Milicic’s limited playing time meant that Ford probably didn’t see any “in-your-face” dunks during a live game. Instead, Milicic apparently came to Ford’s hotel to share a video tape in which he dunked over future NBA player Nenad Kristic. Needless to say, the agent probably never sent a video of a subsequent game during which Krstic (29 points and 9 rebounds) dominated Milicic (7 points and 2 rebounds). Why would Ford have any reason to believe that an agent wouldn’t be forthcoming with all useful information to make a thorough evaluation of player?
3. Although reluctant at first, the NBA eventually bought into the hype.
In order to be declared eligible for the 2002 NBA Draft, American players had to graduate from high school while international players had to turn 18 at least 45 days before the actual draft. The league had publicly stated that it wanted to increase the age of draft-eligible players; however, it faced a tough challenge from opponents who referenced Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant. Despite the success of these players, the next group of teenagers (e.g. Jonathan Bender, Darius Miles and Kwame Brown) was beginning to provide support for the argument against letting high school players jump right to the NBA. What better way to attack the rule for international players than letting someone like Milicic fail too?
At the exact time that Chad Ford wrote his article about Milicic’s athleticism and dunking ability, Milicic’s agent was in the process of petitioning the NBA player’s union to support a rule change so that his client could be declared eligible for the upcoming draft. Based on the existing rule, Milicic could have developed more as a player and matured more as a person by waiting, but he wanted to be an NBA player immediately. In what can only be seen as an indirect appeal to the NBA, Ford included the following quote from Milicic, “The people from the NBA who come to see me think I’m ready. Why does David Stern not think I’m ready? He’s (sic) hasn’t seen me play.” I imagine the “people” who thought that Milicic was ready to join the NBA are the same ones who talk to Ford about Syracuse players.
I have a lot of respect for David Stern and everything he did to make the NBA the global brand it is today. It’s fair to argue that the NBA wouldn’t be so popular without the hard work and talent of Magic, Larry, MJ, Kobe, and LeBron. At the same time, they wouldn’t have the recognition (and wealth) they have today without Stern’s strategy to build the league around its stars. It has been suggested over the years that Stern may have crossed a line when promoting the league (e.g. giving the Knicks a “chilling” victory in the Ewing Sweepstakes) or protecting it (e.g. MJ’s attempt at a baseball career instead of serving a suspension for gambling). Using these examples as inspiration, I’d like to offer my original (i.e. imaginary) take on the February 2003 rule change which allowed Milicic to enter the draft a year early.
After listening to Milicic’s agent ranting for months about how great his client was, and reading Ford’s biased article with a personal plea from Milicic in it, Stern finally reached a breaking point. In the middle of a meeting with Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik, Stern screamed out to his assistant, “Get Silver on the phone!” The following is a recording of the conversation, which Granik gave to me after jumping into the back seat of my car while I stopped off to buy a magazine at a sidewalk stand:
- Stern: Hey Adam, I have you on the box. Russ is with me.
Silver: Hi Russ.
Granik: Hello Adam.
Stern: Have you seen the latest from Ford? F-ck him and the F-ck the rest of them! If they think that some over-hyped 17-year-old Euro-kid can come into our league and take it over, they’re idiots.
- Silver: Yeah, I saw it. How about the line, “He’s hasn’t seen me play.” Aww, how cute. Did you get in touch with Peja [Stojakevic] and Vlade [Divac]?
- Stern: Yeah. They said he’s talented, but raw. He’s no Dirk. Maybe closer to Raef [LaFrentz].
Silver: So you’re not doing it?
- Stern: Hold on. Here’s why I called. Let’s say we let him in and he fails miserably because it’s too soon. How long before we can increase the age in the next CBA? Two years, three years tops. In the meantime, we get a nice bump in Europe.
- Silver: Well, it won’t work if he ends up with Popovich. Look at what Pop’s done with Parker and Ginobili. If you want an international bump, let’s give the title to the Spurs this year. Michael only got three in a row. We can’t let Shaq and Kobe have four.
- Stern: We can do both. You know that Darko will be a lottery pick if we change the rule because everyone, well not Jerry [West], will assume we’re endorsing the kid.
Silver: I’m listening.
- Stern: Philly’s hovering around 500 (winning percentage) so let’s hope Larry [Brown] misses the playoffs. As we discussed, Cleveland’s getting #1. Who’s not going to love the hometown story? And I like Gordon [Gund].
Silver: So we put the Sixers at 2 if they make the lottery?
- Stern: The Sixers, or wherever we think Larry’ll be. You know he’s due for a change, especially if he thinks Iverson can’t get him over the hump.
Silver: We could make that happen . . . [pause and then laughter from all parties].
- Stern: How about this scenario? If Dumars thinks Brown is available, he’ll dump Carlisle faster than Larry King going after his next trophy wife. As long as Memphis doesn’t win the lottery, which it won’t, Detroit gets the Grizzlies’ pick. So, we slip the Pistons in at 2 and let Larry go to work. He’ll beat the kid into a pulp within two years.
Silver: But that’ll never happen.
- Stern: Yeah, you’re right. We could never make all that happen . . . [Stern starts to chortle as the tape hisses before cutting off completely].
It’s often said that the truth is stranger than fiction. If so, I’d like to know why Stern really agreed to the rule change.
Then again, the story might be true because Chad Ford didn’t report it.
4. Joe Dumars took the bait and made a colossal mistake by drafting Milicic instead of Anthony, Bosh or Wade (among several other picks who would have been much better).
In a previous post, I discussed Joe Dumars’ role in making the selection for Milicic. Specifically, I mentioned that Milicic (as well as Chad Ford) just happened to be in the same gym as the Pistons while the team was in New York getting ready to play the Nets in the 2003 playoffs. Presumably, Milicic amazed quite a few Pistons that day with an absolutely incredible workout. A few hours later, the Pistons won the 2nd pick in the upcoming draft (thanks to a trade with the Grizzlies from six years earlier), which meant that they could select anyone but LeBron. When things go well, people often look to the stars and believe that they were aligned perfectly to create an ideal situation. With respect to the Pistons drafting Milicic, the stars aligning on May 22, 2003 resulted in a fiasco.
In an article commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 2003 Draft, ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst quoted Dumars as saying,
After I drafted Darko, from that point on, the amount of background we do on every single player that you see us draft is ridiculous. We do as much or more background than any other team in the NBA because of that. The background on (Milicic) was about 20 percent of what we do now. I look back on it now and realize you didn’t know half of the stuff you needed to know. With Darko, we may have had two sources of information. That was it. We may have talked to a couple of guys over in Europe. That was it.
Even though Dumars personally saw Milicic and told Jon Barry that the Serbian was “an absolute stud,” he now wants us to believe that the faulty decision was based on “a couple of guys over in Europe.” Say it ain’t so, Joe. Just fess up and admit that you made the mistake, albeit a big one.
It’s okay, Joe. We still remember a lot of other great decisions you made. We know that you picked up Tayshaun Prince with the 23rd pick in the 2002 Draft, traded for Rasheed Wallace to enable the push to the 2004 Championship, and cut your losses by trading Milicic for a draft pick that resulted in Rodney Stuckey. As such, you deserve a pass.
On the other hand, Chad Ford was front and center in perpetuating the excessive hype surrounding Milicic. I understand that Milicic’s agent did his job by creating a buzz around his client, but it’s not clear to me why Ford had such a proactive role. Clearly, draft analysts should have opinions about different players, but they shouldn’t become pawns for agents or scouts. To that point, I’m most intrigued that Ford happened to be in the same Manhattan gym as Milicic and the Pistons, and basically set up the “impromptu” workout. In particular, I have a hard time believing that it was just a coincidence. Even though Ford never laced them up in the NBA, his role in the Milicic saga was significant enough to earn him a Honorable Mention in the countdown of Top 10 NBA Draft Busts. In addition, if Chad Ford ever gets implicated in the scandal involving the revisions to his mock draft, he might also get recognized in another category (i.e. Top 10: Busted!).
[Update: Ford got fired from ESPN in 2017 during the Worldwide Leader’s massive layoffs. After apparently sitting on the sidelines for two years due to his severance agreement, Ford started publicly commenting about the NBA draft again in 2020. I have no desire to hear what he has to say, so you’ll have to search elsewhere if you do.]